I think I’ve been around this campaigning lark long enough to know how it is supposed to work. Activists come out with the hyperbole and ad hominems to get themselves noticed, and the government responds with dull statistics and boring reports.
However the current debate on fracking seems to have all this back-to-front. The Prime Minister says we are “irrational” with a “religious” opposition to fossil fuels, Lord Deben thinks we are all ex-Troskyites, and Greater Manchester Police believe we’re only at Barton Moss “to disrupt and intimidate the local community and to antagonise police.”
Deben is, of course, the easiest to disprove. Ex-Trotskyites don’t become environmentalists. They renounce their left wing views, become Climate Change deniers and get jobs writing for the Daily Mail.
And Climate Change is what it’s all about. Talk to a bunch of anti-frackers, like the crowd currently camping out at Barton Moss, you will find a variety of reasons for opposing shale gas, but Climate Change is the one that never goes away.
Perhaps we really have learnt lessons from the mess in America, although I would really like to hear that from someone with a better record of safe hydrocarbon extraction than former BP CEO Lord Browne. Maybe the rules in this country are good enough to make the industry behave, and the underfunded Environment Agency is up to enforcing them. Possibly the claimed health risks of fracking are a myth, notwithstanding the reluctance to disclose what fracking fluid actually is or to disclose court documents. And conceivably fracking sites aren’t that much of an eye sore, although surely only a Conservative Party Chairman could describe something that covers an area the size of two football pitches and has a fifty foot tower as “no bigger than a house” (Grant Shapps on Question Time)?
That still brings us back to Climate Change. Ignore for a moment the tricky issues of fugitive methane emissions, which if they exceed more than 3.2% of the gas fracked make shale gas worse than coal. Forget about the soot from coal which contributes to global dimming and so partly off-sets the carbon dioxide emissions, and don’t worry too much that the gas Putin pipes to us, although politically a bit iffy, arrives here more cheaply and easily. This still leaves us with the question of whether we should we replace our dirty old coal fired power stations with shiny new ones running on fracked gas?
If the switch was there to be flicked right now this would be one of those thorny issues, like nuclear power or the incineration of domestic waste, that splits the Green community. But the reality is that the switch cannot be thrown yet and may not be ready for a least another decade. Even at Barton Moss, the current front line on fracking, we are looking at two months more exploratory drilling, six months analysing the data and the best part of a year getting ready if Igas do want to come back and drill. A fracking boom would require 20 to 40 Barton Mosses a year, and that just isn’t going to happen soon.
So even if all those irrational and religious ex-Trotskyites were to pack up and go home tomorrow, it would still be 2025 at the earliest before fracking in the UK could really be considered up and running.
And this is where the dull statistics and boring charts come in. There is no way, say the experts, that we can bring a brand new fossil fuel online in the middle of the next decade and still keep Climate Change to below two degrees by the end of the century. No way. We need renewable energy as soon as possible. The climate cannot wait for us to ride out two decades of fracking boom and bust first.
So the Prime Minister and Lord Deben can fire away with all the rhetoric and invective at their disposal. They can parrot the line on jobs, or safety, or whatever else the industry emails them. Their formerly left wing friends at the Daily Mail can join in too. But we will just sit back and point to the graphs, the climate models and the science papers and reply the computer says no.
It may not be the way round you’re supposed to do things, but that’s the way it is.